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Dune (1984): Now with More Spice   2 comments

german dune

Dark, alien, and plagued by a period in development Hell that would make Terry Gilliam shudder, David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune endured a lot of false starts before making it to a theatre near you. The film tells the story of two warring factions: House Atreides and House Harkonnen. House Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow, Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis) rule the beautiful ocean planet Caladan. They’re attractive, intelligent, and noble. House Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Sting) dominate the desert planet Arrakis. They’re ugly, barbaric, and cruel. OK, Sting’s not ugly, but he’s so nasty you think he is. Filled with political intrigue, spirituality, and even references to the Middle East’s control of oil, Dune is an ambitious film. It aims high, and while it doesn’t hit all of its targets, it hits enough to make for a bizarre and entertaining experience.

close
Don’t stand so close to me.

Though Lynch’s Dune premiered in 1984, attempts to film it started in 1971. Arthur Jacobs, who produced Planet of the Apes and Play It Again, Sam, gave it a shot first. He asked David Lean to direct. Lean said no. Jacobs searched for a director and worked on other projects. He died in 1973 before production began.

computer says
Computer says no.

Jean-Paul Gibon’s company took over after buying the rights from Jacobs’ estate. They hired Alejandro Jodorowsky, who brought in the dream team of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Dan O’Bannon, Mick Jagger, H.R. Giger, Moebius, Pink Floyd, and Shirley Temple Black. All right, not Black; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Cost overruns abounded, and the producers, afraid of what would have been a 10-14 hour film, wrestled the script from Jodorowsky’s hands.

japanese dune
Japanese poster for Jodorowsky’s Dune

Producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights, asked Dune author, Frank Herbert, to write a screenplay, and hired Ridley Scott to direct. Now the film would be made in two parts and last a more manageable four hours. The death of Scott’s brother Frank caused him to reassess his life and career. He left the production to make Blade Runner.

sean
Either way, Ridley, you’re stuck with me.

De Laurentiis scrambled to secure the rights again, and his daughter, producer Rafaella De Laurentiis, hired David Lynch to direct Dune. Fresh from the critical success of The Elephant Man, but with no science fiction background or knowledge of the Dune series, Lynch began writing a screenplay. He wrote another screenplay. And another. Lynch wrote a whole bunch of screenplays; then he made the film we know and love. Well, some of us love it. Some lump Dune in the same category as Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate: an expensive, rudderless epic. I don’t. For me, Dune has everything a good science fiction film needs.

heaven
Enough already with the abuse.

First, it has space. The two feuding houses don’t live on either side of the Adige in Verona. They live on different planets. It’s the year 10,192 and space travel is a snap. This is especially true if you’re in the Spacing Guild. Spacing Guild members travel the same way Carlos Castaneda did. They drop a little spice and fold space. It beats walking.

spice ad

guild
Hey man, come over and we’ll fold space. It’ll be epic.

Next, it has cool futuristic weapons. House Atreides invents these awesome weirding modules that can kill a guy with the right wavelength. Also, Patrick Stewart and Richard Jordan, clad in transparent armor, train Kyle MacLachlan in hand-to-hand knife fighting. Stewart and others refer to atomic weapons, and remote-controlled hunter seekers armed with poison darts float from room to room.

weird
Pew pew pew!

Then, it has nomadic desert troops waging jihad against their Harkonnen oppressors. The allusions to Arabic culture don’t end there. The character name Thufir means victory in Arabic and Kyle MacLachlan’s tribal name, Mu’adib, translates to teacher. Herbert made comparisons to the Middle East oil crisis and environmental issues throughout his Dune series.

sun
I hope they’re wearing sunscreen.

Then, it has worms and spice. Is there a relationship? The worms are rather large and have accompanying lightning. People fear and worship them. The spice mélange expands consciousness, changes eye color, and helps with that space folding thing.

worm
I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for quite a while.

Last, it has an alien aura like no other film. Dune looks like a post-apocalyptic steampunk S&M club’s rendition of Lawrence of Arabia. Vast deserts, steam-powered weaponry, red mohawks, burqas, goggles, leather Speedos, and dimly lit rooms contribute to the overall atmosphere of Victorian future space Bedouin chic. The sweeping theme by Brian Eno and Toto reinforces Dune’s epic status. With a supporting cast that includes the Lynch repertory company of Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Jack Nance, Dune is well acted and fun to watch. I even like Alan Smithee’s two-part televised version even if David Lynch doesn’t. I’m not alone either. Quite a few of us find the strangeness of Lynch’s vision appealing. Recently, the topic of guilty pleasure films came up on Twitter and I named Dune as one of mine. Immediately, people came out of the woodwork expressing their love for the much maligned film. The praise for Lynch’s odd science fiction gem surprised and delighted me. I guess I’m not the only fan of worms.

A version of this essay appeared first in the Brattle Film Notes, the blog for the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and my favorite theatre in the world. Here’s a link to that piece. http://www.brattleblog.brattlefilm.org/2015/02/25/dune-now-with-more-spice-2654/#more-2654

baron
What’s up, Baron?

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The Swarm (1978)   5 comments

french swarm

Mile by mile, city by city it moves leaving in its wake a path of destruction.

The Pentagon calls Major General Slater (Richard Widmark) and Major Baker (Bradford Dillman) to investigate the invasion of a secret ICBM site in Texas. They arrive at the base to find the entire crew dead except for Dr. Brad Crane (Michael Caine). Crane explains that the men died, not from enemy fire or poison gas dropped by the Soviets, but from bee stings. Crane sends for Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda), beeologist, who claims the war they’ve been expecting has arrived and sets to work doing autopsies and testing venom.

ants
And you thought ants could spoil your picnic.

In this man vs. nature film, the military refuse to believe the scientists or do very much until some picnickers die violently at the hands of bees. Do bees even have hands? Then bees overrun a Mayberry-like town filled with old Hollywood stars which puts a damper on Olivia de Havilland’s annual flower festival. She and her suitors Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson along with the rest of the town board a train to look for a town without bees. Cue Gene Pitney.

Meanwhile, back in the lab, Dr. Krim experiments with his bee venom antidote and we meet Richard Chamberlain and José Ferrer for some reason.

provision
Yeah, probably not.

Scientists and airmen make plans, bees foil those plans, and things blow up…a lot. No one knows what to do until Dr. Crane stops ogling Katharine Ross for a second. Oh, she’s in this film too. Crane has a weird and brilliant idea ‘that just might work’. More stuff happens. The end.

Irwin Allen, directed The Swarm and directed and/or produced many of the best disaster films of the 1970s. He produced The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, The Night the Bridge Fell (?), and The Swarm with big budgets and big, star-studded casts.

errol
From Errol Flynn to this?

Along with the actors I mentioned, The Swarm also stars Lee Grant, Slim Pickens, Patty Duke, Cameron Mitchell, and Alejandro Rey. I enjoy seeing so many A-listers all in one place, but I have to wonder if the Screen Actors’ Guild had a 2-for-1 sale or something. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music and Stirling Silliphant and Arthur Herzog wrote the screen play based on Herzog’s novel.

I like The Swarm. It has a 70s dream cast, decent bee effects, and fun dialogue. At one point a helicopter pilot screams “Bees, bees, millions of bees!” right before crashing into a mountain. Dr. Crane remarks after a failed attempt to destroy the bees that “They seem to sense it’s something that will kill them.” Really, Brad? Later Richard Chamberlain says, “They’re brighter than we thought.” Henry Fonda replies, “They always are.” Wise words, Hank.

The film also boasts Bradford Dillman as an Air Force major trying desperately to decide what sort of accent he should use. He tries several so it becomes sort of a game to predict how he’ll sound next. A bunch of guys get covered in bees then catch fire and fall off buildings which is always fun. People who are stung also see other people as giant bees. Maybe the bees ate the brown acid.

four bee
Second word. Sounds like me?

Anyway, if you like 1970s stars, flame throwers, or bees, you’re in luck. The Swarm has all those and Michael Caine emoting all over the place and saying “Four minutes to flaming.” It’s a lot of fun.

I watched a making of segment on the DVD and apparently Irwin Allen took care of the actors and stunt people. He spends a lot of production time making sure they have the proper equipment and checking their condition after each shot. Fire and live bees, after all.

Oh I almost forgot the disclaimer.

bee-disclaimer
I had to take a screenshot of this.

Some of my best friends are bees.

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